Combing Through The Deeply Rooted Politics Of Black Hair Issues

Illustration for article titled Combing Through The Deeply Rooted Politics Of Black Hair Issues

In today's New York Times, Catherine Saint Louis attempts to get to the root of the politics surrounding black hair. She touches on "good hair," the "creamy crack," Malia Obama's twists and Chris Rock's new documentary. She writes:

Straightening hair has been perceived as a way to be more acceptable to certain relatives, as well as to the white establishment…

In the face of cultural pressure, the thinking goes, conformists relax their hair, and rebels have the courage not to. In some corners, relaxing one's hair is even seen as wishing to be white.

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We've covered this issue many times, as has the Times, and the discussion is ongoing. Frankly, the debate does get tiring. Saint Louis writes that many people of color ask: "Why can't hair just be hair? Must an Afro peg a woman as the political heir to Angela Davis? Is a fashionista who replicates the first lady's clean-cut bob really being untrue to herself?"

But a quote from Noliwe M. Rooks, the associate director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, struck me as as close as we're going to get to an answer. She was asked about what it meant when the hair of Sasha and Malia Obama was sometimes pressed straight, and said: "There's a complexity to who we are now. There wasn't an easy answer to why."

Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics [NY Times]

Earlier: Weaves, Extensions & "Creamy Crack": Chris Rock's Good Hair Trailer
Chris Rock's New Documentary Explores "Good" Hair
Solange Chops Hair, Is Called "Insane"
The Flesh-Eating Phonies Also Known As Lace-Front Wigs
Why Is Straight Hair The Epitome Of 'Style'?

DISCUSSION

This issue really bothers me. I think about how often my appearance is political or up for debate or commentary, just because I'm a woman. But when you add in the racial (and often class) issues that black women deal with on this issue alone, I'm just kind of enraged.

I remember watching one of Oprah's "financial diet" episodes. The finance expert was white and the family she was working with was black. She observed their spending for a week. When she learned that the mom went to the salon every week to have her hair cared for, she immediately saw it as a place to save money. You can see where she was coming from — she probably thought, "Oh, this is just vanity! Much easier to trim money here than on groceries." But the minute the financial guru said, "Oh, you could just let your hair go natural" you could see the mom and Oprah really tense up. Oprah basically said, listen, you don't understand about black hair.

And it's true. Non-black women grow up with all kinds of hair issues, but we view it as an issue of personal taste and choice. We have bad hair cuts and bad hair days. But we really have no idea what it's like to feel like our hairstyle tells the world how we feel about our ancestry, our culture, the history of civil rights, etc. It seems trivial, but sadly, it's really not.